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Conserving Abbey

Staff members from the Gallery's Conservation Department unroll and mount Edwin Austin Abbey's study for The HoursThe Yale University Art Gallery is planning a major exhibition on the American Renaissance, a period of flowering in civic art that took place in the decades following the Civil War. Though the show is still years away, conservation has already begun on some of the objects that will be included. Several oil studies and works on paper by the American muralist and illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) are currently undergoing treatment in the Shared  Conservation Laboratory of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) at Yale West Campus.

One of Abbey’s largest and most visually stunning works is a 12-foot round study for The Passage of the Hours painted in the first decade of the 20th century. Conceived as a half-scale study for a ceiling mural that still exists in situ in the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, the painting depicts 24 figures, each representing an hour of the day, striding around the perimeter of a sky filled with the sun, moon, stars, and constellations.

Making preparatory sketches on paper and canvas was a crucial component of Abbey’s artistic process. In this final study for The Hours, Abbey not only solidified the positioning of the figures in relation to the constellations but also captured subtle differences in the tonality and intensity of light as it illuminates the figures representing the times of day and night, successfully conveying the cold, even light of early morning, the bright, warm light of noon, and the soft, silvery glow of midnight. The surface of the painting retains many delicate traces of Abbey’s working technique; for example, the artist used white chalk to map the compositional space and black charcoal to make alterations to the figures. These dry media are present underneath, in between, and on top of the paint layers, demonstrating Abbey’s continual process of revision and refinement.

Staff members from the Gallery's Conservation Department unroll Edwin Austin Abbey's study for The HoursThe study has been in storage for decades and the effects of being rolled for so long, combined with its large size, creates several treatment challenges: how to place the painting upright for cleaning and inpainting when it is taller than the lab ceilings; how to clean surface efflorescence (a hazy white substance) from the highly sensitive paint layers; and how to stretch, frame, and safely transport the work for the exhibition. These challenges necessitated the development of innovative treatment approaches and also presented opportunities for collaboration among departments at the Gallery and IPCH. Abbey’s experimental painting technique and materials also prompted research and scientific analysis, which is being conducted by Gallery conservators and curators alongside IPCH conservation scientists.

Before unrolling the painting, conservators and art handlers built a platform in the Conservation Laboratory to serve as a clean, elevated surface for treatment. Conservators then spent several weeks examining the painting and documenting its current condition through reports and diagrams. Finally, treatment began with conservators stabilizing areas of flaking ground and paint, applying an adhesive underneath each loose flake to secure it back onto the canvas. Various types of adhesives were tested to find a material with enough strength to secure the loose flakes but with an overall matte finish that would not distract from the unvarnished, velvety surface of the painting. To access the center of the canvas, conservators used a wooden bridge that was specially constructed for working on large, unstretched paintings.

Kelsey Wingel performs a conservation treatment on Abbey’s study for The HoursWith the ground and paint layers secured, the painting was temporarily stretched onto an aluminum strainer. Abbey’s study could then be placed upright for the first time in almost a century. Conservators reduced creases and deformations in the canvas, caused by extended periods of folding and rolling, with controlled applications of moisture and weight. Soon, the painting will be removed from the aluminum strainer and returned to its original wooden stretcher. To avoid putting tacking holes in the original canvas, conservators are working to develop more gentle and reversible stretching techniques, such as sewing Velcro to the lining fabric on the edges of the painting, which will also allow the large work to be stretched and unstretched during travel. Finally, grime will be cleaned from the surface of the painting, and areas of missing paint will be inpainted to reduce the appearance of losses and restore aesthetic harmony.

The conservation process can be long and beset with challenges, but the opportunity to spend time with a remarkable work of art is an experience that conservators treasure. Thanks to the dedicated team of Gallery conservators, curators, technicians, art handlers, fellows, and interns, Abbey’s study for The Hours will one day be ready to share with the public.

Kelsey Wingel

Postgraduate Associate in Paintings Conservation


Photos: Top, staff members from the Gallery place Edwin Austin Abbey’s study for The Passage of the Hours upright in the Conservation Laboratory. | Middle, the study for The Hours is unrolled by Conservation Department staff members. | Bottom, Kelsey Wingel, Postgraduate Associate in Paintings Conservation, performs a conservation treatment on Abbey’s study for The Hours, and in the background, Cynthia Schwarz, Senior Associate Conservator of Paintings, examines the work.

This article was first published in the Yale University Art Gallery Magazine (Spring 2019) and was updated in June 2020.